Friday, September 2, 2016

Lionel Barrymore's "anti-celebrity"

So I've been much pondering this here blog and my research, as I come down to the point where at least the Kildare/Gillespie films are done and ready for data mining. I realize not only that I'm a little obsessed with the topic, but that the subject is rather more complex than the relatively scarce information about him indicates. I've blogged before on what it's like to research a private man (well, private as one can be in a public field), and why I respect his desire to keep the private private.  I still hold by that post.

But aside from what I've already talked over, I find myself more and more drawn into the sociocultural phenomenon the Barrymores represent, and the sociocultural impact Lionel Barrymore had on society via his films (here, referring primarily to his 1938 and beyond films, as other concerns about earlier, silent, pre-Code films are a whole 'nother blog!).

Now, we are accustomed in our society in the US to celebrity kind of being brayed about here and there, and there are plenty of internet and print sources to feed this mania, and I think the majority of people find celebrity gossip stuff inane, stupid, but not harmful. It's true celebrity has always in the US had a significant impact on things like fashion, but now we find ourselves looking at celebrities either in anticipation of a public political statement or ready to condemn them for making one.  Lionel Barrymore himself had this to say about celebrity:

 He wrote later for the national show "This I Believe":
First off, I think the world has come a mighty long way toward believing that what a man does to make a living can’t rob him of his integrity as a human being, when it will listen to an actor talk about what he believes. I can remember when nobody believed an actor and didn’t care what he believed. Why, the very fact that he was an actor made almost everything he said open to question, because acting was thought to be a vocation embraced exclusively by scatterbrains, show-offs, wastrels, and scamps. I don’t believe that’s true today and I don’t think it ever was. I don’t think there were ever any more ne’er-do-wells, rogues, poseurs, and villains in the acting profession than in any other line of work. At least I hope that’s the case. If it isn’t, it’s too late to change my mind and much too late to change my profession. (You can read and listen to this here: Lionel Barrymore: This I Believe, 1950's radio essay)

I don't think it's fair for celebrities or athletes or really almost anyone to be castigated for speaking on something JUST because of their profession. There may be exceptions, but I think overall, every American at least knows she or he has a constitutional right to speak, whether they should or not at that moment being the judgment call. It may be an inane or a brilliant statement--such is life!

So LB was at least very aware and, based on interviews and books and whatnot, critical of the "Barrymore Legend" or "Aura" or whatever--heaven forbid someone use the word "mystique"!  He was also very aware of the way his brother John was written about in media during his fast and furious and too-short life.  Most interviewers of Lionel Barrymore either start with his legendary reticence or mention his lack of self-disclosure during the interview itself. He did not seem very interested in himself or what most people thought of him.  He did not seem overly impressed with celebrity, titles, or money, though he certainly valued the latter and spent it freely.  He seemed outwardly grumpy, terse, and short-tempered: all of which help keep the public away!

Co-workers  more often speak of his grumpiness as masking a very soft heart and of course, later in life a great deal of physical discomfort--Lauren Bacall in one of her biographies speaks of sitting next to Barrymore during the making of Key Largo and the crew and her being distressed because they could hear him moaning quietly in pain between shots.  But Margaret O'Brien recalls how quickly he moved over to comfort her when she began crying on a Kildare film set, promising her a doll if she would stop crying--then proceeding later to make her rag dolls between shots on the set, which she cherished.

Those are all fascinating aspects, though tiny ones, of the man himself.  He may not have fully grasped how much value he had to MGM in particular, but the sheer number of his films, even post-wheelchair, tell us he was valued highly and sought after by other studios as well, where MGM could make a great profit by lending him out and reaping money beyond his salary.  He did not seemingly ever benefit from a profit cut of a film, though I have seen some documents that may bring that into question.  Some biographers have posited his excessively busy 1930s were in part due to his second wife, Irene Fenwick, and her interest in Hollywood glamor and parties.  Some believe he just always thought he wasn't making enough money for taxes, life, etc--and all of the Barrymores had a talent for running through money! 
Irene Fenwick and Lionel Barrymore, 1933

I have to admit it's pretty astonishing, that he felt so like he was under imminent threat of the poorhouse or tax liens, and that he felt the need to have MGM parcel out his paychecks carefully-- it all speaks of a man who really didn't want to do more than exactly what he wanted to do, not deal with the minutiae of banking. But it brings me back to celebrity and the need for proper and excellent management of celebrity; society builds them up, and freakishly it seems like we take perverse pleasure in bringing them down. John Barrymore proved a frightening and sadly comical example of that, flaming out in 60 years, while his admirer Errol Flynn flamed out at 50.

Lionel Barrymore lasted much longer, though perhaps near the end of his life he was a little astonished to still be there. He seemingly rarely made a print article in terms of scandal, and there was not as much interest in his "romantic" life when the fan mags and tabloids really went full-out around the 1920s.  His chameleon-like ability to alter his appearance in performances, and his darker, often more "pedestrian" appearance than brother John probably worked against fan mag profiles (not to mention he didn't like giving interviews or talking about himself).  I have read a few letters asserting fan admiration for both his acting and looks, but the variation in roles kept it hard to pin Lionel Barrymore down.  He was an old man, and then a grand old man, before he was out of his 40s, it seems!  Even his role choices suggest his own interest in character acting, stage and screen:

LB as he appears at the beginning of the 1919 play The Copperhead, as Milt Shanks, in his 20s or 30s

The much-aged 75-year old or so Milt Shanks, at the end of the 1919 play. Same actor!

He was interviewed on how people show their age while he was playing Cortelon in The Claw, opposite his first AND second wives, and opined that someone who was a careful observer of people could accomplish a great deal on stage, noting how people who are aged seem to sag, break down, collapse into themselves physically. After the writer told him his makeup choice for the much-aged Cortelon was brilliant in the last act, Barrymore smiled and told her "My makeup was exactly the same as it had been in the first act! You saw those signs [of aging] because you felt they ought to be there. It was for me to make you expect to see them--and you would see them". ("LB Tells How People Show Their Age", Mary Mullatt, The American magazine, Feb 1922)
LB as Cortelon in The Claw, 1922, beginning of the play

...and at the end, with Irene Fenwick. Note the slack jaw and loose muscles.
In 1922, he also appeared like this in films: Boomerang Bill...
...and Jim the Penman. VERY different looks!

Mind-boggling, the man's physical facility!  What he could have taught some actors, this man most unwilling to become one when he started. Perhaps he was speaking rather more deeply than it first seems when he wrote this for "This I Believe":
We don’t make anything up out of whole cloth when we decide the way we want to play a role, anymore than the author, who wrote it, made it up out of thin air. The author has one or two or perhaps a great many more models in mind from which he takes a little here and a little there until he’s built up a new character out of substantial material. Now the actor who must play this part has to dig back into his life and recall one or two or more people who are, in some way, similar to the person the author put on paper...I think this is the way a person must plan his life. Adopting, borrowing, and adapting a little here and a little there from his predecessors and his contemporaries, then adding a few touches until he’s created himself.
Lionel Barrymore certainly created himself uniquely out of many models--and he did it over and over again,without being precious or "method" about it. How does one try to make a "celebrity" as we know them today out of someone so happy to subsume himself in the roles he plays for the public?  I'm not sure I even want to try. And I admire him for it.

Happy Friday and Happy Labor Day, y'all!

No comments:

Post a Comment